Why You Do What You Do

David Patt over on the Association Executive Management blog recently attended a session for CEOs about employee engagement, and one of the CEOs asked the following question:

Why it is OK to leave the office early for a family dinner but not for an acting class? Neither has value to the association but both have value to the respective employees.

Good question. How much do you think about what your employees value? Do you make judgments about the "appropriateness" of what they value? How does that serve you or the organization?

And the broader question is, why do you do anything that you do as a leader or as an organization. It is fine for you to say that your organization will support family over personal interests of the employee, but you have to say it. You have to actually be clear about what is important and what isn’t. Why some people get to leave early and others don’t. Why people sit where they do.

Part of the evolution of the workplace is the importance of meaning. People won’t do things "just because" as much as they used to. The "why" is critical to employee engagement. I don’t know it’s so much about having the "right" answers to the why questions as much as it is having (and saying out loud) the answers in the first place.


  1. Scott Sherrin
    12.09.2008 at 3:16 pm

    You raise such a critical point that I think many leaders (and organizations) overlook. It my experience leaders are sometimes afraid to talk about things, such as the employee who has to leave early for some purpose that the organization supports, because they’re afraid everyone else will decide they need to leave early for x or y. But then all the other employees see is that one person gets to leave early and they don’t, with no explanation as to why. So they start forming their own explanation, and then wonder why they should work so hard since THEY don’t get to leave early sometimes. And if the leaders had just explained in a broad sense why the employee was leaving early in the first place (i.e., because as an organization we value family time or whatever), then the other employees would have probably had no issue whatsoever. In fact, they probably would have felt even better about working for an organization that was flexible in that way. Leaders can’t be afraid to talk about why.

  2. 12.09.2008 at 8:02 pm

    Hey, Jamie, I think if some of these values were said out loud, employers might realize how unfair and biased (and, sometimes, stupid) they are. The association should place value in results, not the particular working styles of each employee.

  3. 13.09.2008 at 9:55 am

    It has become very difficult in the organizations to decide on family first or job first.. fears of layoffs and economy slowdown has increased the pressures of the employee’s. i know many instances where the employee had a very important family function but missed it out of lay off fear. In a country like India where pressure is not pleasure it becomes more difficult to manage personal and professional lives.
    the art is balance both.

  4. 16.09.2008 at 7:01 am

    The thing I especially love about that quote from David’s post is that it shows that everyone has a stake in working toward increased flexibility at work. I’ve seen a lot of articles that turn the idea of “flexibility at work” into “people with kids vs. people without kids,” and include a bunch of quotes about how Person A leaving early for a daughter’s soccer game means that Person B always has to stay late, etc. etc.
    Instead of it being a zero-sum, parents-get-flexibility-and-everyone-else-doesn’t game, we should push for greater flexibility for everyone. Maybe I want to come in late after dropping cupcakes off for my son’s birthday; I should also push for someone else in my department to be able to leave early for a volunteer gig or an afternoon bike ride. If there’s something in it for everyone, maybe we can join together in support of workplace flexibility instead of sniping about who gets it and who doesn’t …

  5. 17.09.2008 at 1:26 pm

    Awesome comments everyone!
    @Scott: general truth: the reasons that people make up about why you do it are almost ALWAYS worse than the actual reasons, so why not tell everyone!?
    @David: I think your point is more prevalent than we’d like to admit. We often hide behind the mask of “it’s not prudent to tell everyone” when the reality is “we can’t justify what we are actually doing.” That, by the way, was one of my arguments behind making salary figures public (which I know is a sticky issue). I just think part of the reason we DON’T is that we’re afraid to admit why we pay people what we do.
    @Lisa: what I guess we’re getting at here, is that too often the only way we “know” if you’re doing your work is if you’re here. That has to change. But that will require us to actually measure work performance, and in a lot of our businesses, that’s a task we’ve avoided.